Two weeks ago I spoke with Tony Blankley. He was in the ICU at Sibley Hospital in Washington. He was glad to hear from me. He was cheerful, upbeat, optimistic.
It seems a problem biopsy following his past battle with stomach cancer had led to troublesome effects, notably internal bleeding, then downhill from there. But the worst was over, he said, the morphine had worn off, and he was back to writing his column. But, Tony said matter-of-factly, his stomach cancer had spread elsewhere. He would move forward soon with experimental treatments that showed promise. Of course, his brave wife Lynda was very supportive. Tony spoke proudly about his two sons ("they are young men") and he worried about his daughter ("she's not yet an adult").
Last year when I was in Washington I had dinner with Tony. He had selected the Serbian Crown in Great Falls. A typical Blankley choice, esoteric, out of the way, a hangout for various intelligence functionaries, current and retired. I've been to Kosovo, and in this restaurant, I felt transported to that region. We were the only diners. Tony no longer smoked (finally); in years past, we would eat at outdoor venues. But Tony still enjoyed his food and ordered robustly, and who would have known that his stomach was effectively gone? As long as I can remember, Tony was overweight—he smoked cigarettes, he ate rich food, and he enjoyed more than one drink with dinner. He loved to cook. When both Tony and I were single, I remember the great chili parties he and Dana Rohrabacher hosted in Washington. Outgoing and erudite, the ever-gracious host, Blankley was the life of the party.
Many prominent liberals, in and out of government, knew Tony and loved him. He didn't admire them for one minute, but he truly respected another viewpoint and he relished spirited debate, and without name-calling. That's because Tony was a liberal in the classic sense. And he was thoroughly honorable and decent, and a lot of fun. An elegant man of style, Tony never compromised on substance. He was, to use Bill Buckley's expression, "one of us." From the morality and efficacy of the free market to the affirmation of American exceptionalism, Tony gave no quarter.
Tony Blankley was always honest in what he said and what he wrote—about everything, whether he was talking about Jimmy Carter, Barack Obama or radical Islamists. And he looked me squarely in the eyes that evening at dinner last March and said, "Arnie, I did what I had to do with the surgery. But no matter what I do, the best I have is a 50-50 chance." He said it with grace, and then we talked about our many accomplished school chums, most very liberal, but a few moving toward a conservative world view. He wanted to know about old chums. "Remember Jim Ellroy ('L.A. 'Confidential') from junior high, isn't he working on a new book?" Tony and I had talked into the evening. The owner of the restaurant apologized. No other customers had come... would we mind leaving?
We called him "Blankley" even at John Burroughs Junior High School. That's right, Tony and I go way back to JB, followed by Fairfax High School, then among the most famous public high schools in the United States. Its many prominent graduates included music legends Herb Albert and Phil Spector, actors Timothy Hutton, David Jansen, Carol Lombard, Demi Moore, Ricardo Montalban, and Mickey Rooney; legendary television producers Lerry Gelbart and Quinn Martin, entrepreneurs such as Broadcom's Henry Samueli, and many elected officials, notably Jack Kemp. And the very classy and precocious Blankley.
At Fairfax, we had formed the school's first forensics league chapter and did very well in debate competition. We had the equivalent of advanced placement economics and read Milton Friedman. And together we organized a local teenage Republican chapter in the congressional district represented by Jimmy Roosevelt, FDR's son. Before graduating, we were active in Youth for Goldwater and walked precincts together in an area 75% Democrat, where doors were slammed in our face.
Years later, I renewed my friendship with Tony—he was a lawyer within the labyrinth of the California Attorney General's Office. I was consulting with AG Evelle Younger in the 1978 campaign against Jerry Brown, running for re-election as governor. (That was then, this is now.) Tony helped me convince Ev to back Proposition 13, which Pete Wilson opposed. Ev won the Republican primary, but as the Republican nominee, ignored our advice. Instead, Ev immediately went on a vacation while Jerry Brown flipped on Prop 13 and seized and championed the issue.
Fast forward two years. I enlisted Tony as a volunteer in the campaign of Bobbi Fiedler. When she defeated 20-year incumbent Jim Corman, then chairman of thee Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, in an epic and hugely expensive race in a "safe" Democratic district, I recommended that the Congresswoman-elect hire Tony as her chief legislative aide. It was an easy sell. Tony was conspicuously brilliant and intuitively strategic. His incisive logic was exceeded only by his incredible wit and great charm. It was fun to hear Tony laugh at his own jokes. It was inspiring to hear his lucid analysis.
When a mutual friend recommended that Newt Gingrich, then minority whip, hire Tony as his press secretary, I warned Tony that Newt was hard to get along with. Several people had come and gone in that job. Newt needed the slot filled immediately, and he hired Tony without the customary in-person interview. Tony was always straightforward with Newt, often telling him things he might not want to hear. Newt respected Tony and acquiesced to this condition—Newt would never disturb Tony's family life. No crisis could trump Tony's time at home.
Tony Blankley was kind and generous. He also was a powerful intellect who understood big ideas: an elegant man of great refinement and culture who argued with passion and conviction. Tony's long career in law and politics, journalism and television—and also in the business world—was ample proof that he was a renaissance man. I never understood when I met him at age 11 how he had a British accent. More than a half century later, I never figured out how he kept it.
Tony's sister Maggie told me that as recently as last week, Tony "was expecting a very good chance at prolonging his life, but he was greatly weakened by the complications" before he started chemotherapy last Friday. The treatment, she said, proved more than his system could handle.
Tony's life was way too short. He enjoyed every minute of it. So did all of us who knew him.
Arnold Steinberg is a political strategist and analyst.